Words by Joe Hamilton
Many endurance athletes have a genuine dislike for spending time in the gym. There is no doubt, most athletes prefer training specifically for their sport and often outside when possible. While there is merit to this, there is also merit in incorporating a periodized strength training program into your endurance training, especially during certain times of the year. Strength training is the result of training both the muscular and the nervous systems to deliver force when it is needed. Training one without the other is inadequate for high-performance competition. The nervous system’s job is to recruit the right muscle fiber at the right time to produce the maximum amount of force. The most effective way to do this is with weight training.
I have read several articles, conducted hours of research, listened to many debates, discussed with many coaches, and athletes the reason they do or do not incorporate strength training into their endurance training programs. The answer typically comes down to not knowing how to periodize their strength program within their overall training within the time constraints that they have.
Back to the basics. Periodization is alternating periods of training based on volume, intensity, and movement complexity. Whether someone is competing or not, the objective of a strength training plan is to address general adaptation and the principle of specificity to vary the amount and type of stress placed on the body. This stress produces adaptation and prevents injury. Periodization involves:
- Dividing the strength training program into distinct phases of training that align with the phases of the overall annual sport-specific training plan.
- Training different forms of strength in each phase to control the volume and to prevent injury and overtraining.
Simply stated, periodization is the primary method of having a plan and then working that plan. The plan must prevent overtraining and optimize peak performance while allowing for the time and training for the specific demands of an athlete’s sport. The time of the year in relation to your priority events dictates the amount and type of strength training stimulus an athlete can place on the body, the physiological adaptations that occur, and making the right adjustments with the right acute variables (exercise selection, intensity, repetitions, and tempo). In an appropriately designed annual strength training program, the training will shift from activities that are high in volume, low intensity, and non-sport specific to sport-specific activities of low volume and high intensity prior to the most important races on the schedule. A properly periodized strength training program gradually decreases as sport-specific training increases. The balance can be different for everyone and is the job of a coach to determine where that line in the sand is drawn.
What to Focus On
A typical year-round weight program for athletes can be divided into three parts. Non-competition season, pre-season and in season. Each division contains different phases of training.
In the non-competition season (which often is referred to as the “stabilization and strength phase” or “anatomical adoption and muscular transition phase”) the focus is on taking advantage of the time away from the primary discipline and shifting some time to strength work. I refer to these stages as the stabilization, strength endurance, and maximum strength. Often athletes are either in their transition phase or just beginning a mid to low volume, lower intensity training block for their sport.
For many athletes, the stabilization phase begins in October (if priority races are late spring and summer) and typically last four weeks. This phase emphasizes an athlete getting themselves accustomed to various exercises. This period is crucial for all beginners and it is also necessary to cycle back through this level after periods of strength and power training to maintain a high degree of core and joint stability. Stabilization phase specifically focuses on
- Improving muscle imbalances.
- Improving stabilization through core musculature.
- Preventing tissue overload by preparing muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints for the upcoming imposed demands on training and establishing proper movement patterns and exercise technique
The next phase, the strength endurance phase, typically starts in November. The focus of this phase is on more intense strength-building workouts. It is designed to maintain stability while increasing the amount of stress on the body. During the strength endurance phase, an athlete will typically incorporate a strength specific exercise with a stability exercise (better known as “super setting”). Strength training volume is at its highest (i.e. strength endurance) and the focus of this phase is to:
- Increase the ability of the core musculature to stabilize the pelvis and spine under heavier load, through more complete ranges of motion.
- Increase the load-bearing capabilities of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
- Increase the volume of training.
- Increase motor unit recruitment and the frequency of motor unit recruitment.
December may or may not be the “off-season”, depending on your event and your location, but for many athletes, this is still the time when the focus is on lower volume and lower intensity work in their primary discipline training. This is the time I incorporate what is often referred to as the maximum strength phase. The maximal strength phase focuses on increasing the load placed on the tissues of the body and has been shown to help increase the benefits of power training uses in the next phase. The maximal intensity phase improves
- Recruitment of motor units.
- Rate of force productions.
- Motor unit synchronization.
The maximum strength phase’s primary purpose is to increase intensity (load) and volume (sets). Stated simply, this phase improves the force needed to move quickly in the power phase.
The power phase is what I refer to as the “key to the success phase” and typically occurs for most athletes in a four week period in January (the preseason). This is the time my athletes feel very strong and are ready to do some explosive training. This level of training is designed to increase the rate of force production (or speed of muscle contraction). The power phase uses the adaption of stabilization and strength acquired in the previous phases of training and applies them with more realistic speeds and forces that the body will encounter in everyday life and sport. Power = Force x Velocity. Therefore any increase in force or velocity will produce an increase in power. This increase in power is accomplished by increasing the load (or force) as in the speed you can move the loads. This complex phase of training typically combines a power exercise right after a strength exercise.
The final strength phase that I keep my athletes on throughout their “race season” is the maintenance phase which typically begins in February and lasts until the race season ends. Depending on the training and date of their event, I may cycle back to stabilization training to improve or refine neuromuscular efficiency. As a sports specific training block increases in intensity and volume, and competition becomes the focus, the emphasis becomes less on neuromuscular development from a weight lifting perspective but maintaining as much strength gains as possible that were gained in the last 12–16 weeks. Often the maintenance phase will include one or two training sessions scheduled early in the week and fall under the priority of higher intensity sport-specific training, like interval sessions. Prior to any major competitions, I ensure an athlete does not lift any weight at all. During the entire maintenance phase, the focus becomes on stretching, foam rolling and strength workouts that focus on total body strength and core circuit work.
During the in-season, many athletes replace their strength training sessions with neuromuscular power sessions for their sport, often referred to as “force reps”. These force reps are basic workouts for building strength and are very much like doing double or single-leg squats, step-ups, or lunges. Many athletes will take the gains they have made in the gym and translate that to their primary discipline.
How to Utilize It to Make it Better at Your Primary Discipline.
Resistance training, like endurance training, focuses on the “SAID” principle. The strength workouts must follow the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. In order to receive the most sport-specific benefits from a strength training program, the program must mirror the demands of the activity you are trying to improve. This means selecting the proper exercises that mimic the same muscle groups you use when training and competing in your sport. For example, if you are cyclist, the hip joint only moves from 30 to an 80-degree extension. So in doing squats, you do not need to go all the way down to a 90-degree knee bend in the knees. Squat only until you have an 80-degree bend in the knees, which will simulate the bend in your leg at the top of the pedal strokes.
The speed of movement is also important. Strong and big muscles like that of a bodybuilder will not make you a faster endurance athletes. As an athlete, you need to train the nervous system to create the power and demand of your sport. For example, for sprinters, plyometric and power cleans in the training program will give you the desired results because you have the neuromuscular efficiency to effectively execute those movements.
With work, family, events and only a certain amount of time allocated to training, strength training often is the first to get neglected. Good news though. Research shows that for a strength exercise to be effective expect to spend no more than one hour in the gym at a minimum of 2 times per week. Workout intensity and quality are important, so this means ensuring that you have a plan in place in place to include appropriate # of reps, the tempo of workout, weight, and appropriate form. Below are some additional general pointers to help you get the most out of your time in the gym:
Use exercises that work numerous joints. Most single joints exercises are not as functional as multi-joint lifts. For example, choose squats over the leg press machine.
Use free weights when you can. Free weights allow for your body to work in all planes of motion with various degrees of amplitude and ranges of motion consistent with those movements used in the sport. Free weights improve postural stability, strength, muscle size, power, and are most effective.
Use circuit training or supersets in your routine. These specialized training styles minimize downtime between exercises, thereby limiting the time spent resting between sets.
And most important of all, always know what you are going to do before you do it. Never start a workout without an idea of what you want to accomplish. Remember, those who fail to plan, plan to fail.
Coach Joe is a dedicated coach and athlete who specializes in MTB racing, road cycling, and strength training. For more information on Joe’s coaching services, or to schedule a coaching consultation with him, click HERE.